Australia

Swagman

The Swagman’s Rest by Pro Hart

Touch my hand

bones splinter in the dirt

think of the wind over the sea

and places bandicoots skitter in the eve

I was once a good man

with shining rope, glinting gun and a plan

although the map’s not one you can see

and my words came smooth, debonair, like lies

 

My final shouts rang true though

if anyone cared to hear them

and I washed myself in the sound

‘Oh Nell, my love, I wronged her.’

the drink has taken stronger men

and left better women stranded

but I broke her heart and stole her wine

the child we’d made, abandoned

 

When it came time for him to die

alone he was, in bracken

the river was so loud that night

she felt the baby quicken

perhaps he called aloud those words

Nell, she didn’t hear him

upon his head she put a curse

and found him in the morning

 

To free his twist in memory’s embrace

we left a blank and humble cross in place

lost now to all but she:

Sandy Dan the Swagman, we

tied ropes across his grave

of bleached bloodwood, as dead as he

and while mountains rise against the sun

no more a-roving will he see

 

Day 18. I enjoyed this prompt: First, find a poem in a book or magazine (ideally one you are not familiar with). Use a piece of paper to cover over everything but the last line. Now write a line of your own that completes the thought of that single line you can see, or otherwise responds to it. Now move your piece of paper up to uncover the second-to-last line of your source poem, and write the second line of your new poem to complete/respond to this second-to-last line. Keep going, uncovering and writing, until you get to the first line of your source poem, which you will complete/respond to as the last line of your new poem. It might not be a finished draft, but hopefully it at least contains the seeds of one.

I used “The Swagman’s Rest” by Banjo Patterson. It ended up with an odd, off-kilter rhyme sequence but I like it

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Neural pathways

As I slope up that bone-colour concrete path

sticks and gumleaves and sand

the scent of the bush – lemon eucalpypt and banksia

alone for the first time in days

home but not home

that smell in my eyes maybe because they fill with tears

or I’m thinking of him trapped inside delerium

grey-green and olive green and agapanthus green and black-burnt trunks with

small explosions of scarlet tongues and creamed-butter ragged tulle blossoms

following paths I’ve never run before

the warm air holds me safe and not too hot

thinking of how I heard he quietly saved his son once from a precipice

the way you do with family, unhesitating, sure as a heatbeat

those old trees stand tall, smooth barked and guarding

not over me, their roots luxuriate in more ancient soil

can you ever reconcile

a life, a mind, a body, a soul

or illness

or just keep jogging on

 

Day 4 prompt was: to write a poem that is about something abstract – perhaps an ideal like “beauty” or “justice,” but which discusses or describes that abstraction in the form of relentlessly concrete nouns. I found the example poem by Amy Tudor in this piece so moving I guess I tried to mimic the style, I think it worked well to focus on trees and flowers etc.  

I might not be able to link to the prompts each day as I´m mostly working via smartphone at the moment so cutting and pasting and link making is a bit of a faff… but you can always check in to http://www.napowrimo.net

Intergenerational warfare

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

 

so I was thinking about

how the Millennials, Xennials, Xers

and whoever comes nexters

were fighting with the Boomers

or is that just in Australia

and I wondered if

it was a media beat-up

a political stunt

to distract

from the real issues of inequality

and then I thought

or

is it as old as time

for the younger gen

to fight

against the ancient ones

wanting to usurp and change?

Language as performance

Does Aussie anti-elitism stifle language learning? Discuss... Photo: Iain Scott

Does Aussie anti-elitism stifle language learning? Discuss… Photo: Iain Scott

Autumn has arrived in a shower of rain, the kids are starting a new year of school and krippe in Swiss-German and I’m thinking about language again this week. Himself and I have had the privilege of a private German tutor since the start of the year but she’s due to go on maternity leave so we’re winding that up. Plus Himself is on the job-hunt in earnest now. It feels like a new phase for many things.

Two wise women gave me some interesting insights about language recently. One friend in Australia pointed out the peculiar strain of Aussie anti-elitism that regards the ‘correct’ pronounciation of foreign words as wankery.  Her example was that, to the average Aussie, people who call a croissant a “Cwausson” are wankers. And it’s true. And there’s a part of me that feels that way too. And I didn’t quite realise it. And it’s a block. Not an insurmountable one, but a block nonetheless to mastering and using a foreign language properly. In fact, even when my own dear mother was here earlier in the year, she pointed out that she could hear me labouring away in German in my Aussie accent and she understood why I did it (because it somehow feels more ‘honest’) but she also insisted I needed to “go for it” a lot more with the Deutsch intonation if I want people to, say, understand what I’m saying. She is also right and a part of me feels that way too. (When I tried to explain this to Himself, he looked at me like I was crazy — is it any wonder he’s powering ahead in German so much more confidently than me!)

And just today, I was talking to a local friend about how I often get stupidly nervous speaking to groups — not even “public speaking”, which is a common enough fear — but just introducing myself in a group situation, even. Heart pounding, voice shaking, the works. Even in a small group. Even if we’re speaking English. It’s so embarrassing. (Does this happen to most people?) And my friend said that it was similar to how she often feels having to use German. “Because every time I speak in German in front of people, I’m on stage”. Gosh, how true that is! (It may be worth noting the friend is a professional stage manager). But again, it’s something I’d never articulated in that way. And it’s another mental block in my language-learning journey. (I should also note that I don’t get “stage-fright” every time I speak German anymore, thank goodness — my son’s krippe introduction session today went off almost without a hitch and almost entirely in Deutsch).

Anyway, as well as being one of the standard How’s-your-German-how-are-you-feeling-about-it conversations I have regularly with other expats, my friend and I were also talking about this stuff because I’m increasingly feeling as though I should do some spoken word / poetry slam type performance with my poems. And, while I’m pretty OK with the idea of this — I’m confident in my poems and I feel they’d work well in this environment — I’m deeply worried that my stage fright will fuck it up. What do I need to do? I’ve thought of singing lessons, which might help. But, ultimately, I don’t think there are any quick fixes beyond: practice, practice, practice. And ditto for the Deutsche sprechen, I guess.

Oh well, I hope at least in some small part, being able to recognise and articulate these stumbling blocks is a small step towards overcoming them.

What do you think? Do you need to thesp it up a bit with a new language? When, if ever, does it start to feel normal and not like you’re a putting on a show?

addendum: I  feel like a bit of a dork for posting this stuff about getting nervous/anxious when speaking to people. I’m not a complete social retard and I’m not even that shy in many situations, particularly one-to-one… really, usually, I swear… whatever. 

A life in two languages

 

Flamingos at Zurich Zoo

Tell it to the birds? I didn’t have anything better to illustrate this post.

I’ve been thinking about language and identity again lately. Mostly, I guess, because I’ve finally managed to re-start German lessons (yay!). Himself and I are having a private tutor come once a week. It’s probably not quite enough for my ideal language-learning scenario. I’m starting to realise that when it comes to German, I want a bit of language S&M: I need to be tied down and whipped into shape with a fairly rigorous routine or my natural laziness / procrastination / fear of failure kicks in and I don’t do the homework. I probably need the “deadline pressure” of a more intensive course, because I’m also a people-pleaser who wants to get her gold star. Anyway… it’s a good start.

I’ve also been trying to get my thoughts straight about English and other languages and raising bilingual (or multilingual) children. I’m on a Facebook group about this and there are some interesting discussions. The ambition of some parents and the abilities of their children is truly astounding.

While there’s plenty of literature around now about the benefits of being bilingual, I was surprised to discover that up until fairly recently, bilingualism was considered detrimental to children … I guess they’re thinking of kids who don’t know the language struggling in schools and stuff? However, recent research all seems to suggest that bilingualism can help people become better problem-solvers and have more empathy, among other things. Here’s a post that debunks some theories about raising bilingual children.  And here’s a blog by Olga Mecking, a Polish woman living in the Netherlands, about some of the negative things people say to parents raising multilingual children. I like the latter because Mecking seems to subscribe to one of my own parenting mantras: Butt out of how other people are raising their kids!

There are still issues, however. I thought this blog post on code-switching by an Aboriginal writer (I’m afraid I don’t know her name!) was very thought-provoking about the power of language skills and how, even if you know a language well, being a less-competent speaker can reinforce negative perceptions, particularly if you’re part of a minority and/or ethnic group that people are already prejudiced against. I’ve also witnessed plenty of online snidery about people whose English spelling and grammar is not up to scratch. And while the ex-subeditor in me mostly agrees, the atrocious speller-of-German-words in me feels some despair at this. Of course, context plays a big part – I guess people aren’t excommunicating their friends who misspell your and you’re on fb status updates (or maybe they are) and it’s reasonable to expect, say, the teacher of your children to have a pretty good grasp of basic grammar and spelling! Anyway, it suffices to say: judgement based on language skills is definitely A Thing.

And this is not just something that happens to the disempowered. I had dinner with a Swiss friend recently who said that, when doing presentations at his work (a multinational consultancy), his “best weapon” is to have his colleague – a Londoner – do most of the talking. The Polish blogger I mentioned above also says in her post that some of the negativity she’s experienced from others in teaching her children her mother-tongue stems from negative perceptions about Poland and/or Polish people in Europe. This worries me a about speaking German too, which my mouth tends to totally mangle. But then again, I don’t feel like people are prejudiced against native English speakers in quite the same way.

Because, in terms of power and privilege, not all languages are equal, are they? In some ways, English is the Bully Language of the world: the one everyone needs, if not wants, to use to access a huge chunk of popular culture (music, movies, cartoons, video games…), get along in business, and use the internet. I was reading recently about how English is also the international language of the aviation industry (ie: those who build and maintain the planes), and who knows what other industries besides?! In this respect, English can feel like an oppressor that seems to exert an unfair dominance on many aspects of modern life. But English is also the language of cool. And protest – I see a lot of graffiti in English — “fuck cops” springs to mind, which I see often in Zuri.

Not that I’m complaining about winning the language lottery. Although, on some levels, being a native and only-English speaker makes me a bit sad. For one, I have try a lot harder to learn another language by the osmosis of popular culture (although being in a non-English-speaking country – sort of! – does help here). And then there’s the fact my “own” language will almost never be a “private” thing to me and my family – because everyone speaks a bit of English!

And yet, and yet… I do wonder.

I am starting to question if the sort of knowledge and understanding of English I have — as a native speaker, word spinner and language-lover —  is actually quite different to what a lot of English as a 2nd or 3rd language people have. Even so much as to almost call it a different beast. “Business English” or “Tourist English” as opposed to Anglophone English or even Australian English. That said, I have friends who are not native-English speakers whose language skills are, almost without exception, impressive to perfect. So English is certainly not an exclusive club only open to native speakers, by any means. In fact, having English as your mother tongue can even be a disadvantage, according to this article, which talks about how native-English speakers can run into trouble when doing business because their overly-deft use of the language alienates others.

However, for me, losing that deftness of language – skills I’ve spent my whole life honing and polishing – is a genuine concern. Because I do wonder if, by learning German and using German more and more, my English will suffer. Even if just a tiny bit, and that thought makes me feel unhappy. And I worry about this for my kids — I would hate to think of them ending up in a sort of Jack-of-all-trades,-master-of-none situation with several languages in their heads but no deep, wide and abiding knowledge of one in particular. (OK, probably unlikely to be an issue and certainly not at this stage!)

Back to the Bully Language thing: I hope I don’t sound like one of those Men’s Rights or White Rights assholes by complaining about this from my position of privilege. And hey, maybe I’m being a bit too precious about “my” language here. OK so it is one of my few marketable skills, but perhaps I should just chill the fuck out about it all. Is it true that you hold on tightest to something just as you’re about to let it go?

A disclaimer: I’ve been sitting on this post for more than a week now and I’m still not sure it perfectly expresses what I want to say, but it will have to do. I’ll no doubt revisit this topic again in future. In the meantime, I would be interested in your thoughts in the comments below, so… Publish and be damned!

When the lights go out…

See the city's ripped backsides

See the city’s ripped backsides

My mother often lies awake at night dreaming of winning the lottery and what she’d do with the money. She’s got it all worked out. How she would only tell a select few people, how she would quietly deposit an equal amount in all three of us kids’ bank accounts, give some to charity (anonymously) and then her and dad would disappear off on an amazing round-the-world-trip (1st class all the way, natch). Or something. I forget the details; I think she’s constantly refining it anyway. For myself, I seem to spend those sleepless moments lately worrying about what I’ll do when the lights go out. Hardly compares, does it?

What’s lights out?

Another day, another end-of-world scenario…  I’ve read a couple of novels recently that were a bit too close to the bone about this “lights out” situation (slight plot-spoiler ahead…) Station Eleven was one and another was the final part of The Bone Clocks. In my own summation – Lights Out is what happens when we reach the tipping point – when we’ve used up most of the oil and the generators (be they coal-fired, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro or whatever) can no longer cope with the increasing demands of our “always on” society. There’s trouble from the constant streams of refugees, who are mostly fleeing political or environmental situations the rest of us have in some way contributed to… The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good wo/men to do nothing… as they say.  The environment’s fucked because we didn’t try hard enough and we’re all too fond of our comfortable lives – leave it for the next generation to deal with, I worked hard for this. We’re flying everywhere, we’ve got disposable everything, mascara has batteries and half the world’s turning into a dustbowl to support it. While we lucky few live lives of incredible wealth and ease, whole chunks of the population live in shantytowns and pick over rubbish heaps – forced into an existence as human-size carrion cockroaches.

So the lights go out. The internet falls over. Chaos ensues. You know the situation. Roving gangs of martial-law or anarchist heavies start roaming around looting, raping, killing… You’re either with them or against them and even that probably won’t do you much good if you’re in the wrong place at the right time.

So what am I doing about it? Well… a big fat nothing. I feel like instead of writing about hot tubs with Matterhorn views, I should probably be taking courses in survival skills. I would love to know how to kill and pluck a chicken, milk a cow, make cheese from scratch and light a fire MacGyver-style. But it all seems so unlikely. And yet, as though it could happen at any moment.

The thing is, we’d be pretty sweet in Switzerland… for a while. Most of the power is hydro, which (I assume, without knowing very much) won’t fail immediately. The country is surrounded by mountains and is pretty inaccessible. The society is fairly stable. There are lots of cows to eat.

But then, part of me doesn’t want to be trapped in Switzerland when the lights go out. I’d rather be back “home” in Australia. Because once the planes stop flying and the telephones no longer work. I’ll be cut off. Forever. My old friends. My family. I don’t know if I can face that. So, I’ve told Himself that at the first sign of the apocalypse (is that a white horse or something?) we need to get on a plane and get out of here. Uh, Happy Australia Day – I hope you’ll be pleased to have four extra “refugee” mouths to feed!

Maybe it’s already happening. When I heard about the Zika virus in Brazil recently, it seemed like an end-of-days harbinger to me. (Why don’t we press pause on a whole generation in a BRIC country? Even better, why don’t we also make sure half the educated, parent-age people who DO have kids end up having to focus on those children’s special needs for the next xxx years rather than building a better world and solving some endemic problems?). OK, maybe I’m getting too paranoid. But that doesn’t mean it ain’t happening. (And we’re all conspiracy theorists to some degree, apparently)

Anyway – that’s my cheerful and (hopefully) lunatic fantasy for the day. What’s yours?

The Fall

Autumn in Zurich Feeling a bit sad lately for various reasons. But not depressed. It’s full-blown autumn now and I’m finding myself slightly dreading the winter months of cold and dark weather and being stuck indoors. Which is kind of crazy because last year’s winter was actually pretty magical with all the snow. And this year, I’m not even pregnant, which basically sucked last winter. There were lots of blue skies too, although people have told me that’s quite unusual for Zurich.

A freelance job ended recently and it was a bit of a shock. I’m mostly relieved, because the work really wasn’t compatible with my family commitments. But still, it was a rather abrupt and unexpected finish that left me flailing a bit.

It was also a bit annoying because after my recent post musing on work v. German classes had helped me decide I should focus on the German, it turned out the classes I was interested in were booked solid! And then I thought even more about it and figured starting childcare and German all at once would put too much pressure on not just me but the family so I’d decided to leave it for a few months and focus on work. Luckily I have other bits and pieces to do.

My baby is 9 months this week and I’ve just this morning dropped him off at a casual daycare, which should give me a bit of a breather… I thought it would be easier leaving the second child. And it is, in a way. On the other hand, it’s somehow more devastating.

I’m also sad because October is the month I’m usually off to Australia – for the past four years I’ve visited my homeland in October-November. I may have slightly talked myself into this one but it doesn’t stop the fact that… ARrrgghhh!!! I could-should-would be getting on a plane right now!! Instead of golden leaves and crisp breezes, I would have a lilac sea of Jacaranda in soft Sydney springtime. Not to mention the sea itself – that sparkling blue-green ocean, set off by tawny beaches and buff cliffs of Sydney sandstone. And now Facebook is showing memories of me out on the town with my two besties/bridesmaids… Oh, my heart.

Besties

Homesickness can take some funny forms though. Out of the blue recently, I got a craving for Iku macroburgers. These meatless mofos were a delicious treat, best eaten when one was hungover or equally ravenous! Anyway, after a bit of frantic googling, I decided to have a crack at making my own. The Iku website lists the ingredients for the tofu fritters, but has no recipes – however I found this approximation on Billie Bites and, with a few modifcations it came up a treat (couldn’t find Aussie-style brown rice, and wanted to include umeboshi vinegar, not that I could find the stuff in Zurich!) I also found a recipe for the steamed buns but since I am not a breadmaker and it would involve purchasing special equipment (ie: steamer) they will have to wait for another day. If ever. My homemade Iku-style tofu fritters and tahini sauce, on a bun and with salad, while not a dead-match, is close enough to quite vividly recall the real thing. Yumm. I was going to post pics but a) They don’t look that amazing and b) I didn’t take any – too busy eating.

Plus there was a mystic ipod moment – while eating them, my ipod on shuffle threw out Crowded House (Weather With You), Cat Power and AC/DC… I dunno, sometimes things just come together.

Now I’m also wondering if it’s time to really have a crack at that novel? There’s so many ideas floating around in my head. My biggest problem is picking one to stick to and then fleshing it out with, hey, actual story, plot, characters (rather than just fancy turns of phrase). I guess now we’ve started this childcare, I might even have time for that too…

Sometimes, I think Autumn is my favourite time of year. The turn of season and the bite of the wind feels like there’s so many exciting possibilities, with that all-so-important dash of melancholy or nostalgia that seems to produce the best art – stir the creative juices. I hope I can capture that feeling and not be too sad as the days close in this year. Maybe I need to also book a plane ticket for Sydney at some point. I don’t know if I can wait until 2017!